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Ideo Revamps Pilates Equipment For Friendliness And Ease

The design team at Ideo took away parts to make "the most successful reformer ever made" easier to use while maintaining its functionality.

While interned in a World War I camp in England, a German fitness enthusiast named Joseph Pilates developed a series of strengthening exercises that even his injured comrades could perform from bed. To create muscular resistance, he jerry-rigged equipment out of what was on hand, including bedsprings, which became the basis for a prop that is now known as the "reformer." As legend has it, when the 1918 influenza hit, all the inmates who followed Pilates’s regimen survived.

Today, the Pilates method is taught in health clubs around the world and has earned a celebrity following for its power to strengthen abs ("the core") and build long, sinewy muscles. And the reformer, the central piece of training equipment, still revolves around exposed springs surrounded by a structure resembling a bed frame—a look that can be intimidating for first-time users, according to Lynne Johnson, the marketing director at Balanced Body, a manufacturer of Pilates equipment. So to make its best-selling Allegro reformer friendlier, the Sacramento, California, company approached the brand-makeover masters at Ideo.

"They were particularly interested in making an aesthetic statement," says David Webster, who leads Ideo’s global health and wellness practice. "If you look at the world of Pilates machines, the icon really still was the hospital bed that Joseph Pilates did a lot of experimentation on, and machines kind of looked like glorified version of that hospital bed with a bunch of generic hardware added to them." For the Allegro 2, Balanced Body wanted to maintain all the functionality of while streamlining the machine, and they wanted it done with an aggressive timeline of eight weeks.

"The first thing that we did was hide the adjustment points," says Jörg Student, Ideo’s lead designer on the project. The reformer has to be adjusted for body height as well as different exercises. "There’s just a bunch of visual clutter and knobs, and we wanted to resolve that," Webster adds. Some of the finer details include a new foot bar that allows for a wider range of body sizes and that can be adjusted with a single hand, or even one’s feet. To make transitions between exercises smoother, the rope system is also easier to adjust, with a simple-to-use lever. Soft attachment points eliminate any clanking sounds from metal parts coming into contact with the metal frame. The result is an enhanced user experience at a slightly lower cost than the older model. "We eliminated a lot of parts, and we managed to do new things in clever ways," Webster says.

Balanced Body hopes that the restyled Allegro, which the company claims is the "most successful reformer ever made," appeals to an even broader audience of users in gyms, studios, and home settings. By objective measures, it looks decidedly less like a torture device, an improvement that its primogenitor would no doubt have appreciated. "If you look at the original machine that Joseph Pilates designed, you have one adjustment possibility, and it’s not very easy to do," Student says. "He was a showman, a boxer, an exercise man. He wasn’t a designer."

[Photos courtesy Balanced Body]

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  • iputthemtogether

    After spending years experiencing the latest fads in fitness and
    playing test dummy for my wife's undying quest for Pilates equipment with
    "body intelligence", I must comment on my experience with the A2s.
     I have spent 15 years scrutinizing equipment, gadgets and props, with the
    same question requiring pause:  "What's the point?"  At
    first glance, I thought, high design, a little feminine, will it hold her
    football and baseball playing clients... and then I got my 215 pound body on
    it, and yes I fit.  My question was quickly answered: "Economy"
    is the point.  Economy of movement for client and teacher, economy of
    manufacturing, less material, clasps, metal, and adjustments, more sustainable.

  • PilatesPT

    I always find it remarkable when people feel compelled to
    critique a product on sight alone - something they’ve never physically seen, much less
    experienced. I suppose that’s the curse of the digital age. I’m a PMA certified
    Pilates instructor, corrective exercise specialist and a Pilates-based physical
    therapist and I actually own four of these
    innovative machines.   I will say this - they are like nothing I’ve ever
    used before, and my first experience with the Reformer was in 1984.  The
    innovation is not merely from the aesthetic design elements but it truly lies
    in the ease of use for the teacher and student.  This piece is a game
    changer and for all of the right reasons.  

  • floatingbones

    Mark, if someone actually experienced this problem, they could put a small utility rug under the unit. Or maybe attach 25-30 pounds of shot enclosed in ballistic nylon to each of the legs. A more elegant low-mass approach is to lay down a two pieces of wood from the wall closer to the front or the back of the machine. If you lasso the two legs, that would keep the reformer from moving in either direction. None of these solutions would cramp your style to use the room for other activities.
    A truly elegant solution is to make and install a passive tuned mass damper along the base of the unit. That stabilizer has low mass and needs no external anchoring whatsoever. The excess mechanical energy is damped out into a little bit of heat. It works for the Taipei 101 skyscraper; it should work just fine for a reformer.As a practical matter, I don't believe anyone would encounter this hypothetical problem. Users of the Concept2 Erg move far more vigorously than anyone ever should on a reformer; they see the problem rarely (see ). I never saw the problems you described on BB's original Allegro model. Good design should use a minimum of material; criticism that the device isn't "beefy" enough sound contrived and rather petty.

  • Mark Dharvey

    Yep. Have to agree with bryan to a certain extent. I have been a fan of Pilates off and on since way before it became all the rage. The weight factor cannot be ignored whether it be for the cadillac, reformer or wunda chair. And sorry, the allegro itself was always too light, not to mention a wee bit rickety - now it's been followed up on with something similar. Ok, maybe it's more solid. The problem is, anyone with a slight bit of heft and/or that is able to get some respectable reps going on a lightweight machine will have it walzing across the floor in no time. For example, take the "running" exercise. Bolt it down? There goes your room usage. I do understand that these days it goes across the grain to make sure mechanical design is structurally strong and  n o t  light,  but unfortunately the damn things have to be heavy enough to keep them more or less in one spot. I'd wager that they didn't have enough time to see how it's used and choose the right materials.  

  • floatingbones

    Bryan, as an engineer, I'm in awe of Joe's ability to create the original reformer and cadillac designs. Given the highly-constrained supplies at the time, creating effective exercise/rehabilitation devices out of hospital equipment should be worthy of a Rube Goldberg award. At the same time, I will take function over form every single time.

    On traditional reformer routines, there are maneuvers where students remove the straps attached to their feet while inverted. This trick isn't a problem for a bad ass performer like Joe or even his highly-impressive Pilates instructors. OTOH, those tricks might be a problem for less-capable students. Those connectors have historically had spring-loaded metal clips and metal rings; dropping those straps badly could hurt a delicate body part or maybe even chip a tooth. The interlocking fabric cords of the Allegro 2 design completely eliminate that risk. The pretensioned adjustability for cord length also makes routines easier for the less-skilled. Pilates instructors wishing to increase the difficulty could blindfold themselves before starting their routines. ;-)

    The single continuous padded bed on the reformer addresses a more subtle problem. By eliminating a separate padded head-rest, there are fewer creased or stitched surfaces that can harbor bacteria. Sanitizing this equipment between clients is far easier.

    I don't know what "QVC-ready" means. BB's original Allegro reformers are used extensively by health clubs and city recreation facilities; they are designed to be functionally robust. I use the original Allegros extensively in public facilities. They feel very safe and I always felt fully supported and stable using that gear. Studios and fitness facilities should expect exactly the same from this new generation machine. Traditional Pilates studios use wooden reformers; that will not change. BB and its competitors sell a variety of lines of traditional gear. If you prefer to exercise on traditional gear, you will always have that alternative.

    IMO, the main problem with this gear is that it can fracture the Pilates community. SInce the Reformer 2's "foot bar" can be slid to any position up the body, it can be used to perform and assist in exercises in a way that's impossible with other gear. This is indeed the tradeoff when redesigning gear; Balanced Body has never been shy to enhance the original functionality in their new designs. Other manufacturers do the same; I'm particularly intrigued by the new "Tower Trainer" just announced by Stott Pilates. Joe may be delighted or angry with these variations. I believe he would be delighted: Joe was constantly changing his exercise equipment.

  • Bryan

    Being married to a Pilates instructor/owner and having taken Pilates myself, I have to say that the old design is part of the draw for me and a lot of clients. Yes, the machines are based on hospital beds and chairs. Yes, Pilates was Joseph Pilates, an all-around bad ass who loved to show off and do ridiculous feats of strength to prove his methods. Isn't that the best part of Pilates? Those utilitarian looking wood machines look (and sound) like they mean business and knowing that I just did 55-minutes on 3 torture devices makes working out that much more rewarding.

    While I respect change, this design comes off looking a bit too light (anodized aluminum?) and a bit too QVC sale-ready. On the other hand, they had 8 weeks to do this and they are IDEO.